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[292] Affinity – Sarah Waters

” How will a person know, Selina, when the soul that has the affinity with hers is near it? . . . She will know. Does she look for air, before she breathes it? This love will be guided to her; and when it comes, she will know. And she will do anything to keep that love about her then. Because to lose it will be like a death to her. ” [211]

In Victorian England, on the heels of her recovery from a suicide attempt, Margaret Prior, an upper-class young lady, engages in visiting the women’s prison at Millbank as a gesture of her rehabilitation. Naturally an unhappy person who wants to find love, the passing of her father, a Renaissance art scholar whom she adores, hits her even harder. Struggling with her lack of power living at home with her society conforming mother, Margaret contrives to reach out.

It is as if every poet who ever wrote a lone to his own love wrote secretly for me, and for Selina. My blood—even as I write this—my blood, my muscle and every fibre of me, is listening, for her. When I sleep, it is to dream of her. When shadows move across my eye, I know them now for shadows of her. [304]

At Millbank, of all the friendships she has cultivated, Margaret is drawn to one Selina Dawes, a spirit medium who has been convicted of fraud and assault following a seance that ended with her mentor dead and a young woman traumatized. The morose Dawes, whose spiritual gifts Margaret initially doubts, quickly gains affection in the visitor’s heart. She is at last driven to concoct a desperate plot to secure Selina’s freedom—to a hugely surprising result.

We are the same, you and I. We have seen cut, two halves, from the same piece of shining matter. Oh, I could say, I love you—that is a simple thing to say . . . But my spirit does not love yours—it is entwined with it. Our flesh does not love: our flesh is the same . . . [275]

The narrative alternates between that of Margaret and Selina, the former being more thoughtful and psychological, the latter action-oriented, recounting the long and short of the medium’s sittings. The main story focuses on Margaret’s research as she seeks to uncover the mystery of Selina’s past. The novel is more haunting than creepy, establishing ambivalence over the notions of ghosts vs. madness. Affinity fine-tunes the exploration of psychological control, of emotional possession, and of the power of relationships. Although an absorbing book, the unexpected twist is less stunning than those of Fingersmith, and the atmosphere less creepy than The Little Stranger except for the one memorable passage on moving waxen finger.

351 pp. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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23 Responses

  1. I have never read any Sarah Waters. Everyone says I should start with Fingersmith, and your review also makes me think that

    • I started with Fingersmith because it’s recommended by so many people—bloggers and friends alike. It turns out to be the best one in terms of twists and turns. There is a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter. Many readers complain that her latest, The Little Stranger, is plain, but I like it better than Affinity. It’s very creepy and is right up my alley. 🙂

  2. I haven’t read this, but watched the BBC adaptation of it. It was the least impressive of all her books. The plot was a bit dull and I was almost bored in sections. I will read it at some point, but I’m in no rush. It sounds as though this is the weakest of her books.

    • I agree up to this point (I haven’t read Tipping the Velvet) I like Affinity the least. I am bummed that Selina Dawes’s narrative doesn’t reveal much about what really happened at the seance.

  3. I’ve had the same impression as Jackie, that this is the least good of Sarah Waters’s books. Such a shame because I think the spiritualism business in late-Victorian & Edwardian England is fascinating.

    • I am also with you and Jackie. Selina Dawes’s diary entries don’t tell us much about the night of the fatal seance. I thought Margaret prior would find out the truth about Dawes but that also didn’t deliver.

  4. I agree with Jenny that the spiritualism is a really interesting topic so it’s too bad this one wasn’t a bit better. I’ve never heard of Sarah Waters before though so I’ll have to check her out.

  5. I adored Affinity, although Fingersmith is my favorite Sarah Waters novel.

  6. Awww, I always think of this one as my favourite of Sarah Waters’ novels, but I do realize that it’s not for everyone. The one that I recommend most frequently is Fingersmith, but this one has my heart.

    • I would love this book if there is a resolution about the events leading to the fatal seance for which Selina Dawes was held responsible. It’s not as creepy as The Little Stranger.

  7. I’m glad I read Fingersmith first since I think it is one of Waters’ best works. But although you don’t recommend a buy on this one I will still plan to read to get an idea of the entire body of her work.

    • I think Sarah Waters is solid since even the weakest work of her, which to be, is Affinity, is far more promising than most contemporary titles.

  8. I’ve only read two Waters books and this one is actually my favorite but if you say The Little Stranger is even more creepy then I can’t wait to get to it!

    • Be warned that some readers comment on the slowness and plainness of The Little Stranger, which I enjoyed even more than Affinity.

  9. I really enjoyed this but I wonder if that was because I read this as the first of her works to me. I have yet to read Fingersmith, though I really really want to, so maybe if I read this after it would pail into comparison?!

  10. Read this last month and really enjoyed it. Couldn’t agree with your last sentence more. Still think Fingersmith was much much better though…

  11. Affinity is currently the best book I have read this year. I cannot imagine anything usurping it. And you’ve written a wonderful review of it.
    For me, the key thing is that Waters drew me in…. I was BELIEVING in Selina [her powers] just as Margaret was. The PROFOUND betrayal of it all so moved me.
    In my opinion, it is really a flawless story, wonderfully executed.

  12. […] Affinity by Sarah Waters was reviewed at A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook. […]

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